J. Cole & The Tale Of Detachment

The official Dreamville YouTube channel, which earlier this month surpassed 100 million total views, is still the home of videos from early 2008 of a 23-year-old J. Cole recording cult-classics like ‘I Get Up‘, ‘Song For The Ville‘ and ‘Hold It Down‘, months before making The Warm Up even crossed his mind. When the light bulb eventually did appear over his head that July, he was sure that it’d be his path to a record deal - someone like Atlantic or Def Jam, he speculated.

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A few months into the mixtape’s recording process, while he was walking into a job he hated and still buzzing from a performance in L.A. the previous night, J. Cole got a text from a friend that what he’d heard about a few weeks ago wasn’t a sick joke. JAY-Z really did want to meet him and today was the day. Without uttering a word to any of his co-workers, he walked straight back out and took a train to the Roc Nation office.

The meeting went better than smooth despite starting with a sweaty handshake. From a few songs recorded in his college dorm room, Cole landed the deal that he had literally dreamt of for years.

That meeting took place in November of 2008 but it was ten years ago to this day, February 24th 2009, that the ink dried on Roc Nation’s first artist contract. Though they initially intended to stray away from Hip-Hop artists, that 23-year-old kid from the south managed to change their mind. This is the journey of working your whole life to get something, then getting it and realising it never mattered anyway.

Act I: Young Simba - ”I can’t wait to be the king”

Despite the look that being signed to JAY-Z will get you, the real collective rubbernecking towards J. Cole came when he ended up releasing The Warm Up on June 15th 2009. As well as building his core, it put him on a fall tour with Hov and a press run. And so came the questions. ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years?’ and all the rest. Looking ahead to a dream scenario while still getting his feet wet in Hip-Hop, J. Cole would always answer that his main goal was to be mentioned and cemented in people’s top 5 lists and to have given them a classic album. This starry eyed version of success was not necessarily a bad one given some of the aspirations new rappers have today, but to have such high prospects for oneself has its own set of advantages and disadvantages as Cole’s career path has shown us.

“I’m tryna make a classic. That’s always been on my agenda since I was young,” he told Pardon Me Duke amongst countless other outlets. “If you wanna be one of the greatest, your first gotta be a classic” he’d say, very sure of himself, frequently citing Nas, JAY-Z, Biggie and Kanye as examples. With The Warm Up out for only a matter of weeks, J. Cole was talking about a debut album that not only didn’t yet exist, but wouldn’t be out for more than two years and he was already setting expectations at a tremendous height with that feared buzzword, ‘classic’. It would haunt him for years to come.

Act II: Cole Under Pressure - ”Funny how so close can seem so far”

The reception to his mixtape put Cole in the good graces of the people and after some well placed guest features, Roc Nation asked for a lead single. Unschooled to the ways of the mainstream, he shrugged his shoulders and handed them ‘Who Dat‘. It seemed like the perfect blend of a worthy introduction to the masses and a satisfaction to the core. Though it remains a fan favourite for many in the bulky discography, with ‘BedRock‘ and ‘Best I Ever Had‘ dominating the airwaves at the time, it never got a fair shot.

He chalked it up to a learning experience and like a mad scientist, went back into the lab to make something more radio-friendly. In went the formula and out came ‘Higher‘. It was melodic, it was lyrical, it was the one. Or was it? Hov liked it, but not enough for it to set things off. “He was f*cking with it, but it was not the reaction that I wanted. The reaction that I wanted was like ‘we got it, n*gga, let’s go.'”

Now a man on a mission, J. Cole refused to succumb to the pressure of the situation and recorded ‘Blow Up‘. It was yet another offering which could conquer radio - an uplifting chorus, plenty of potential for crowd interaction at shows - Cole was even more confident when he approached JAY-Z this time around. And it paid off. He got the reaction he wanted and all systems were go. For all of a few hours, that is. After a night of celebration, with the pure hearted intent of an encouraging parent, Hov texted Cole that he could do better. “I think the record’s a nine and a half, I think you got a ten.”

After making ‘Can’t Get Enough‘ but fumbling with the Trey Songz chorus in the eleventh hour, Cole was desperate. He was almost 18 months removed from his grand introductory mixtape without a trace of an album’s first single and those inevitable murmurs about him being just another shelved Roc act grew louder. This was the part he hadn’t considered when fantasising about being a Hip-Hop megastar. Despondent, the rapper determined that it was time for drastic measures. While in New York, he recorded a freestyle over a leaked, Ross-less version of Kanye West’s ‘Devil In A New Dress‘ and decided that he would sacrifice some material he had for the album, combine it with some freestyles and put out another mixtape, to buy him time if nothing else. He passed on The Blow Up and Villematic as official titles and dropped Friday Night Lights in November of 2010.

Phew.

Act III: Play The Game To Change The Game - ”What good is being the one when you the only one that knows it?”

J. Cole was revitalised by the mixtape and its overwhelmingly positive reception and just like that, the Carolina kid now had a clean slate and a new year ahead of him. He had a full length debut ready and was only a single away from being able to unleash it.

We didn’t know it at the time, but he has since shared how he spent the first half of 2011 frantically trying to make a hit with a certain formula. It was taxing on his artistry and the start of a creative downward spiral which would leave him feeling drained. “‘Is this a hit snare drum? Is this a hit kick drum?'” he would ask himself as he made a beat. “‘Is this line catchy enough?’ That’s a terrible way to make music. If you ever catch yourself as an artist thinking like that, you have to catch yourself and stop ’cause that’s a dangerous way to make any type of art.”

The process of searching for a song that would please his label and work for radio took Cole away from the place he was in those videos when he was recording in ’08 to a rapper pressured by the system that he was once ignorant to. From the outside looking in, he had The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights out with the promise of a classic and it looked like he had the game in a headlock. However in reality, it was his breath that was shortening and his face that was going pale. They say that you’re not doing things correctly as an artist if you haven’t made something you’re ashamed of but it can be said unquestionably that this isn’t the way to go about it.

His unpleasant quest for a radio single left a 26-year-old Jermaine Cole robbed of his creative freedom. But as is often the way with these things, that’s when the reason for a sigh of relief came.

J. Cole was in his hotel room after a performance, listening to The College Dropout as he often did. In his own words, the debut was “life-changing” for him. It came during his own college experience. However, even Cole acknowledges that the LP is not without flaw. When playing it through, he would always skip ‘The New Workout Plan‘, “the worst song on that album”. For no reason in particular, this time he let it play and as if it were a gift from the heavens, he heard the vocoder portion at the end of the song differently, knew instantly that he had to chop up the sample and he ended up making ‘Work Out’. It was the exact kind of song that the suits felt that he needed to make. A fourth quarter buzzer beater.

He presented the song to Roc Nation and it immediately got him the highly anticipated release date and after celebrating with a b-side called ‘Disgusting‘, Cole dropped the lead single on the two-year anniversary of The Warm Up.

When it came out, it was like the entire culture froze for a second and looked at each other awkwardly. It wasn’t necessarily that the song was bad, but it was a perverse offering from Cole at the time and felt like an anomaly in his discography. Not to mention that the single’s release was already at a disadvantage due to ‘Lost Ones‘ leaking a few days before it. This was totally left. ‘Work Out’ was the result of sacrificing integrity and creative freedom for acceptance from those that didn’t matter anyway.

“It was the worst response I’ve ever gotten on any song that I’ve ever put out” Cole told Fuse. “It was terrible… When I made that song, it was a triumph. I felt like I beat the game… It was a happy moment for me… I understood why people did that, but it hurt.”

However anyone felt, including Cole himself, all systems were go and the debut album that had been the topic of conversation since 2009 finally felt imminent. After all of the false hope, just days after ‘Work Out’ dropped in mid-June, Cole took to Twitter to reveal the album’s title and release date. “Cole World: The Sideline Story out September 27. Thank you & thank the lord.”

It was an interesting position that J. Cole was in. He was obviously not an ‘underground’ or ‘backpack’ rapper but to be a fan of his still felt like you were part of something special. This final period before he finally had an album on the shelves was the last time that you felt like you were in on some incredible secret earlier than everyone else. This uncertainty about how big he really was placed a cloud of confusion over how he would do with his debut offering commercially.

As with any label situation where the company requires a radio single from its artist before their album is even given a release date, there were certain expectations of Cole’s debut album. Roc Nation estimated that Cole World: The Sideline Story would sell around 80k-100k copies first week and that this would be a success. In hindsight, that six-figure mark was criminally low, but at the time, it felt to many that just reaching it would be the win.

There were many that never thought that a J. Cole album would see the light of day and for a while, it looked like they could have had the last laugh. But after a long two and a half years from being signed in February of 2009, the debut album finally dropped and all the doubters were silenced. After spending just 24 hours on the shelves, the album had already sold 115k copies and a colossal weight was lifted from the shoulders of Cole and his team. It had all been worth it. It was a win.

Or rather, that’s how it should have felt. The days after the album’s release left Cole feeling a little bit like something was missing. The standards J. Cole set for himself when he first signed his deal two years prior proved to be too high and too particular and he was left feeling unsatisfied with his own work right after it was open for public perception, as creatives often do. He was touring the LP, in his vintage cargo pants, black tee and black and red Jordan 11s and already started to work on the sophomore, fueled by the rejection.

“It didn’t have what I dreamed about, (which) was that initial impact of like ‘boom!’. So numbers wise, it did something that I couldn’t have imagined. But in terms of that impact I wanted… it didn’t have that boom.”

Thus came the biggest obstacle of Cole’s career so far. An album finally out in the stores with 218,000 copies sold first week and a lingering feeling of emptiness. The cover art for Cole World: The Sideline Story shows J. Cole in a locker room before a big game, the equivalent to an NBA debut after college hype. It is almost as if he got a double-double, pleased the crowd and exceeded expectations but was so committed to the idea of dunking on someone that he left the court disappointed. And so the depression hit.

Act IV: Writing Out Of Darkness - ”I put my heart and soul in this game, I’m feeling drained, unappreciated”

Cole entered 2012 feeling like he missed with his album, still going through the motions of a new artist - interviews, shows. No matter how he, his harshest critic, felt about the music, it was an incredible achievement and the results continued to show. March 1st was named J. Cole Day in Fayetteville and a few months later he joined Drake for the second leg of the North American Club Paradise Tour. Behind the mask of a successful artist who exceeded all commercial expectations and cemented his spot in the game, he was in a dark place after knowing he didn’t make the impression that he wanted to.

There were a few instances around this time in 2012 that made it clear that there was also some doubt in the rapper’s mind about who he was and who he wanted to be in the public eye. One example of this is the shiny new Jesus piece he had around his neck and the flooded Rolex on his wrist.

It was quite the sight to see J. Cole with any level of jewellery on and this inner battle he had before buying it would fuel a lot of his musical concepts. When he took the stage at an open mic event in July, he rapped a freestyle which later showed itself to be ‘Chaining Day‘. He admitted that he caved and spent way too money on jewellery and for a few, it was almost a cause for concern. It was a sign that he was drifting, engulfed in the lifestyle. The chorus on the song said it all: “I need you to love me”.

The interesting thing about this dark period for J. Cole is that while he was often battling dark thoughts through the creative process, he was also grateful to be free making music again for the first time in a while. It was therapy for him. What Cole World: The Sideline Story proved to Roc Nation - and in turn, to the entire industry - was that their methods of waiting around for a radio single to push an album were archaic. Selling a lot of albums gave Cole freedom to make whatever he felt this go around. He was essentially the last guinea pig and what the huge commercial success of that album displayed is largely what allows artists today to build up a fan base on their own, release an album and thrive without selling out with an attempt at mainstream success first. In an interview with Karmaloop in October of 2011, he acknowledged it himself. “We created a new mould, a new formula. Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T. now, they don’t necessarily have to feel the pressure that I felt like ‘where’s the big single?’ I was the sacrificial lamb of that.”

Throughout 2012, for the first time in years, J. Cole was making music freely again and even while he was quiet musically, that those creative juices were flowing was crystal clear. He popped up for a private show in October of that year and would spontaneously rap never-before-heard verses on the spot, having fun with the crowd for the first time in a significant while. That same show, he updated fans on his sophomore’s status: “I already got my album. It’s like right there, it’s like all the songs are there and sh*t… Honestly I’m just waiting for my man, Kendrick Lamar… soon as he drops and f*cks the world up, I’m ’bout to come and f*ck the world up.” The foreshadowing is priceless.

By the point that good kid, m.A.A.d city was about to come out, Cole and Kendrick were friends and already two years deep on the mythical collaboration album. J. Cole has talked about how he always felt obliged to shout Kendrick out in interviews and give him game on the industry. The aftermath that ensued once Kendrick dropped his debut was a few levels above what even Cole expected and Kendrick was a different animal almost overnight. Despite what eventually unfolds in this story, early on, he might have been motivated by it because in early November just a fortnight after K. Dot’s major label debut hit the stores, Cole announced that his new album would be titled Born Sinner and would be out January 28th 2013, despite knowing even then that reaching that release date might have been far-fetched.

Miss America‘ came a week later and though it was acknowledged that this wasn’t a first single per se, it was even more evidence that after the turbulent single searching of 2010 and 2011, Cole was in a very different space regarding boundaries and restrictions. The remarks on the end about the radio never playing the song meant that the trials and tribulations of yesteryear were well and truly over.

And with that, J. Cole headed into 2013 with a chip on his shoulder, ready to right the wrongs of the debut album, looking to prove to the world he was what they thought. In doing so, he once again put pressure on himself to deliver to people’s expectations of him.

Of course, we know that Born Sinner did not drop in January. Instead, Cole opened the year up with Truly Yours, an bundle of unmastered, raw songs refreshingly closer to his mixtape era of music than anything he’d released in a while. It also came with the announcement that it was time for the sophomore and the first single would be out the same week. This was to be the true gauge of Cole’s head space.

On Valentine’s Day 2013, Cole released ‘Power Trip‘ with Miguel and there was a collective sigh of relief. No, it wasn’t lyrical miracle Hip-Hop, nor should it have been, but there was more to it than one listen suggests. “I don’t care if nobody ever found out that ‘Power Trip’ had a double meaning… I don’t care. I do that sh*t for me” he told Nick Huff Barili of Hard Knock TV. In many ways, ‘Power Trip’ was what ‘Work Out’ wasn’t in terms of having a balance between being catchy enough to appeal to the masses but true enough to Cole to co-exist peacefully with his spirit. Most vitally, its creation was effortless.

A few weeks after that first single dropped, Cole spoke at Harvard about various topics, one of which was Born Sinner and its concept. He revealed the duality aspect of it with one specific example, the balance of being a new artist and wanting success but staying true to yourself. “It was all about ‘yo, I’ma come through, I’ma drop a classic, I’ll worry about the rest later’… And then you get in the game and now there’s this new pressure, self-pressure and outside pressure, to be successful… I don’t wanna see Drake with all these hits and I ain’t got no hits.” This level of consciousness he showed about his turbulent career path until that time was key growth.

Although there was improvement on the front of creativity, it was only human nature that Cole carried some of the arguably naive aspirations of the first album over to Born Sinner. Another thing he spoke about at Harvard was the connection, or lack thereof, between the GRAMMYs and Hip-Hop. He made the point about how The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below are the only albums by rappers to win Album Of The Year and they only did so due to the influence from other genres. Instead of going on to dismiss the academy because of this bias, he admitted they were even more in his sights. “I feel like I’m tryna change that though… Maybe I’m delusional but I feel like I got a shot… but maybe they’ll just crush my dreams anyways and not even really pay attention but I feel like I’ma make ’em listen.” Once again, J. Cole was attaching himself to the idea of winning a GRAMMY and thought a panel’s acknowledgement could validate him.

Act V: May The Bitter Man Win - ”Back on a mission tryna get what’s mine”

Born Sinner dropped and it was an intensely honest review of Cole’s journey since his first LP’s liberation. Akin to his debut, he once again walked the line between good and bad, almost sounding as though he was thinking out loud about such personal topics. On ‘Runaway‘ he admitted the casualties of touring had gotten the best of him, on ‘Villuminati‘ he threw caution to the wind and said ‘f*ck being politically correct’, on ‘Ain’t That Some Sh*t‘ his aggression and ignorance was almost out of character. His loss of identity over the body of work was conceptual but sincere.

The public response to the sophomore effort was generally better than the 2011 debut and to this day it is a favourite for many, but it was abundantly obvious to most that there was still some disengagement with who Cole was when he first signed his deal. The issue was that though he attained a level of consciousness about these obstacles through years of his own experiences, he was yet to find a solution for them.

The road to and release of Born Sinner was rocky, but it was a necessary journey for Cole, mentally if nothing else. It was one of the ultimate crucial steps to the MC becoming who we know him as today. “You ever told a secret to somebody and you’re like ‘whew, I’m glad I told’? That’s what Born Sinner felt like to me.”

While Cole fought his own battles in 2013, his friend Kendrick Lamar’s career was the stuff of dreams and in many eyes, he was doing what Cole was expected to do a couple of years prior. The Roc Nation MC was not oblivious to this perception by any means. Though he was cordial about their relationship and Kendrick’s success in interviews, some of his lyrics lacked the same humility. On ‘Winter Schemes‘ which came out a few weeks after Born Sinner, with fervour, Cole raps “I saw you sorting through trash and brought change for ya, opened up they lane, do I gotta say names for ya?” It was a braggadocios spin on what he had to go through with ‘Work Out’ opening doors for certain rappers.

When that Kendrick Lamar verse kicked down Hip-Hop’s door in August of 2013- yes, that verse - J. Cole had already been warned about it a week or two beforehand via a phone call. The message must have been conveyed to him in a particularly blunt way because when the song came out, he didn’t even bother listening.

It was J. Cole who approached Kendrick to shower him with praise when he first heard him rap in 2010. It was J. Cole who sacrificed one of his best instrumentals in ‘HiiiPoWeR‘ for Kendrick to have as a single. It was J. Cole who talked up Kendrick to Dr. Dre before the West Coast natives ever met. He felt betrayed and he wasn’t going to stay silent about it.

He stepped up to the plate with confidence on Justin Timberlake’s ‘TKO’ remix, stating firmly that he was ready for whatever and comfortable going to war. But ‘Control‘ only highlighted his own shortcomings and forced Cole to feed into the conversations which take place to this day about him, Lamar and Drake. A fortnight after ‘Control’ dropped, good kid, m.A.A.d city went platinum - a feat Cole was yet to reach. The man he once wanted to sign was surpassing him and it was no secret. He caught himself tangled in the dangerous web of comparison - the thief of joy.

“Might burn a couple bridges, I’m losing by double digits” he accepted on ‘Hell’s Kitchen‘. “Fighting depression, I’m trying, my nigga, but every time I think about it, I’m crying”. He had let Kendrick’s success leave a sour taste in his mouth. The reactions from fans only amplified it. On ‘Blowin Smoke‘ his resentment was clear- “one day they love you, next day they put the niggas you put on above you”. There exists no better example of this period of struggle than on Treasure Davis’ ‘May The Bitter Man Win’.

Produced by and featuring the rapper, on the surface, it serves its purpose as a traditional break up song. But Cole’s verse works not only as the story of heartache in a former relationship, but is a review of his complicated history with Kendrick and Hip-Hop. The genre is the lady in focus and Lamar is her new man.

On one hand, I’m happy for her because she smiling and I think about the times that she smiled for me
On the other hand, I’m bitter and well, inside I’m dying ’cause she loves him and she ain’t got no time for me
And her new boyfriend is so clever, overheard a couple of her friends telling her he better than me
And despite all the spite that builds with each passing night, I can’t help but think they right because he never did cheat

Biggie’s lines from ‘Long Kiss Goodnight‘ ring in the background during the chorus, “I want my spot back”. The cheating in question here alludes to Cole’s surrendering of artistic integrity with ‘Work Out’. Simply getting through that gruelling process should have been seen as the victory but when measured against Kendrick’s path to stardom, it is naturally criticised more harshly.

Cole started off rhyming as many do, partaking in cyphers and trying to outdo the next MC. But that was way back in the early 2000s and mainstream success often robs rappers of that competitive drive and the raw urge to clash for the hell of it. ‘Control’ slapped him back into reality about what it was he fell in love with in the first place.

“This is why I felt a way… I heard the loudness of the people - ’ooh!’, ‘oh!’, ‘ooh!’ - that sh*t had me feeling like ‘yo, what the f*ck?’ I had to have a conversation with him… I just had to find out for myself like ‘yo, what’s that?’… When I got the answer and had time to reflect… I had to really check myself.”

Kendrick’s down to earth response, the same he gave in every interview about the verse being an ode to the nature of Hip-Hop and not malicious in any way, helped Cole come to the realisation that this was indeed a sport and meant to be fun. This was the first of his life-altering epiphanies that led to the next chapter in his career.

It was here, almost five years into his career as a signed artist, that J. Cole could have easily fallen into back into the pattern of soaking up all of his criticisms and once again going back into the lab, nearly demented, trying to churn up an album that would fill the gaps in people’s minds about him. The same thing he did when he needed a radio single, the same thing he did when his first album wasn’t heralded as the greatest album of all time, the same thing he did when he drew his attention to the perception of him versus Kendrick Lamar. He had always been driven by rejection and often came out better at the other end, but the accumulation of these instances was chipping away at him harmfully.

“Rejection from like, the critics and rejection from like, JAY-Z over singles, you know? Rejection from Nas… Rejection from even some of my fans like ‘oh man, you ain’t as good as you was on The Warm Up or Friday Night Lights‘”

Cole seemingly found himself at a fork in the road. He was either going to deal with this new rejection about his ranking in Hip-Hop the same we he always had, looking for confirmation from outsiders and overcome it, or he would finally crumble to it.

Act VI: Detachment - ”No such thing as a life that’s better than yours”

While in Germany on the European leg of the What Dreams May Come Tour, Cole was unwinding on his tour bus after a performance. It was late November and he very casually looked at the date. “I was like ‘yo, it’s crazy, it’s about to be 2014′” he reminisced on The Combat Jack Show. That’s when the entire next phase of his life hit him.

As we now know, 2014 was the door number of J. Cole’s most cherished childhood home in Fayetteville at Forest Hills Drive before it got foreclosed. He knew instantly in that moment that he was going to name his next album after the house and buy it back to serve justice. The last line on Born Sinner‘s title track teases it, perhaps without Cole even knowing – “can’t wait to hand her these house keys with nothing to say”.

From that magical moment on the bus, it was four or five months before he actually started recording his third album and this period of in-between time is arguably the most paramount in his decade-long career.

Instead of picking a left or right on the set path at that aforementioned fork in the road, Cole decided to turn all the way around and go back the way he came. Home. Where the heart is. This enlightenment came largely from the concept of 2014 Forest Hills Drive that was in his head until he started fleshing it out in March of 2014.

Going home made him realise that ultimately, he did want all of those achievements that we so often associate with an artist’s success – awards, being in the top spot, commercial success – but not at the expense of his true happiness. He came to the conclusion that genuine fulfilment was attainable without all of that because it could come from what he already had - his loved ones and an appreciation of the bare essentials.

All of the frustration and dissatisfaction in his career up to this point had come from events not meeting his expectations. He got signed and convinced himself that his first album absolutely had to be a classic. When it wasn’t, he tried to make it up to himself with the next album and obsessed with winning awards for it. He attached himself to some generic career path which wasn’t for him. When this attachment to any idea is removed, the risk of disappointment and rejection is also removed.

Remaining more lowkey than ever throughout 2014, J. Cole watched on with quiet confidence as fans called it the worst year in Hip-Hop music ever, knowing what he was about to unleash. All the while, he was making a conscious effort to not expect anything. No first week numbers, no critical acclaim, no ranking of himself in anyone’s lists. He didn’t even put a first single out. No promotion was his promotion.

Upon release, 2014 Forest Hills Drive immediately became J. Cole’s most successful LP to date. The freedom in his new way of manoeuvring through life had a clear impact on his art. In beautiful irony, it took Cole letting go of his desires for the fruits of his labour to ripen the way he always yearned for. From the age of 15 when he started making music, he had aspirations of designer clothes and cash that overflowed, but as he got older he realised that wasn’t what was important. What he shifted his focus to was the accolades that come with the music industry, but he had now realised they too were not important.

He toured the album in a t-shirt and joggers and once again disappeared into his own life and it became clear that this was to be the norm from now on. It became a running joke that his third LP went platinum with no features, only furthering the perception that he was a recluse, totally secluded from everything and everyone. His hair continued to grow, adding to that unkempt look. “I swear to God, I be thinking about how to get unfamous, but I know it’s impossible” he told Billboard last year.

Since this period, there exists a new aura around Cole that is the antonym of what he was in 2009. This iconoclasm has been prevalent ever since and has defined the rapper for the second half of his career. His growth has made him almost unrecognisable from the hungry wordsmith whose sole aim was to be in your top 5 list. When he signed the Roc Nation contract ten years ago today, he could have signed away a lot more than his music and money.

Progress is a slow process. But one of life’s greatest indulgences is to reminisce on the past and truly appreciate a journey, however gruelling it may have been. In fact when it comes to hindsight, the tougher, the better. Indeed, journeys may be rocky but if approached correctly, they are frequently the most rewarding part of any situation. Not the beginning, not the ending, but that far too often overlooked middle bit.

Of course, you’d be forgiven for taking them for granted. It’s human nature to let things pass by unnoticed, never to be cherished until they cease to exist. For so many years, this is what J. Cole was doing. But ten years on from signing his deal, the greatest gift he has given us is to warn us of the other side where the grass seems greener and plea that we adjust our gaze from up to everything that glitters to what is around and within us.

Who knows where J. Cole will be ten years from now? Who cares? He’s here now and we’re able to bare witness to it. Take a deep breath, be present and be grateful.

by Akaash Sharma

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